VHA is updating the search capabilities at LaurusHealth-a health-information source for consumers-as well as other Web sites just for its members, to make finding information an easier task.
Although this might sound simple, it's not. As most people who have looked for information on the Internet know, searches often bring long lists of irrelevant articles and documents. That's because most engines search for information based on keywords without understanding the concepts behind the words.
"General search engines don't get the consumer-the user-to the health information they want to get to," says Peter Plantes, M.D., the VHA's vice president of business operations. "Health information is such a complicated topic for the consumer."
To build a concept-based search function on VHA's Web sites, the alliance and HEALTHvision, both based in Irving, Texas, purchased software called Dynamic Reasoning Engine, from Autonomy, Cambridge, England. HEALTHvision, a privately held company in which VHA holds a financial interest, develops, operates and manages the Web-based infrastructure on which LaurusHealth runs. VHA provides the content through contracts with outside vendors.
Autonomy's software uses pattern-matching technology to analyze a piece of text and determine the meaning, rather than just identifying individual words.
"The software allows the computer to actually read the language and comprehend the relationships of one word to another," says Debbie Abbott, director of business development at VHA.
The first phase of the new search engine was rolled out in February. VHA plans to add features, such as "dynamic condition centers," to the search function throughout the year.
Here's an example of how the centers work: If a consumer enters a search for "pregnancy," LaurusHealth retrieves a Web page subdivided into informational categories and news, not merely a list of articles. Behind the scenes, Autonomy uses chunks of software called "intelligent agents" to put the latest information on a topic into predefined page layouts.
Although LaurusHealth already has some "condition centers," the Autonomy product creates the centers on the fly, allowing consumers access to a seemingly limitless number of centers.
In addition to the LaurusHealth site, VHA plans to add the search functions this year to internal Web sites for members and staff.